A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Isiah Thomas is overrated

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With the Last Dance covering the rivalry between the Pistons and Bulls and Isiah’s Dream Team snub, it has ignited an argument about his legacy.

Isiah is widely considered a top 30 player all time and one of the best PGs after Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson, however the stats don’t back this up. They’re not just off, they’re way off. Isiah is only 151st all time in career win shares – behind guards like Sam Cassell, Derek Harper, Calvin Murphy, Hersey Hawkins, Andre Miller and others who it’d be considered insulting to put in the same conversation.

To begin with the positive, Isiah does have an illustrious passing career. He is 7th all time in assists per game and his 13.9 mark in 86 is the 3rd highest in history. He is one of 9 players in history to have 4 or more 10 assist seasons. During the title years the Pistons were the slowest paced team in the league which reduced his numbers to a still strong 8 or 9 per game. While overshadowed by other defensive stars on the Pistons during their best years he also averaged over 2 steals per game from 83 to 86.

Where Isiah’s case slides is his scoring. The most overrated type of scorer tends to be players who are inefficient, but who’s volume also isn’t overwhelming. The combination is the Bermuda Triangle of overrated scoring, the Rudy Gay and Andrew Wiggins zone. This is the issue with Isiah. His ranks in TS% and PPG from 83-90:

83 – 25 players over 20ppg: 21st TS%, 12th PPG
84 – 26 players over 20ppg: 24th TS%, 21st PPG
85 – 28 players over 20ppg: 25th TS%, 24th PPG
86 – 27 players over 20ppg: 17th TS%, 20th PPG
87 – 28 players over 20ppg: 25th TS%, 27th PPG
88 – 30 players over 19ppg: 27th TS%, 30th PPG
89 – 41 players over 18ppg: 36th TS%, 39th PPG
90 – 37 players over 18ppg: 37th TS%, 35th PPG

On five different occasions he ranked bottom 5 for both volume and TS% for his benchmark, including both title seasons. In comparison in 2019 the only players above 18ppg who ranked bottom 5 in volume and TS% were Wiggins and Tim Hardaway. No-one above 20ppg ranked bottom 5 in both, but C.J. McCollum was close at 5th from the bottom in volume and 6th in TS%.

The best modern comparison for Isiah’s stats is John Wall, another player who excelled at points and steals. From 2013 to 2016 he finished between 17.6 and 19.9 pts and between .510 and .524 TS%. In 2016 he was the least efficient scorer over 19 pts in the league and 2nd least in 2014. 2017 was his best year in volume and efficiency at 23.1ppg and .541 TS%.

Isiah vs Stockton is often framed as scoring vs playmaking, but Stockton had better scoring numbers in 89 and 90 than Isiah. Stockton averaged 17.1 pts and 17.2 pts in 89 and 90, but on elite efficiency of .624 TS% and .607. Isiah’s scoring is slightly higher at 18.2 pts and 18.4, but far less efficient at .528 and .501 TS%. It would be foolish to value the one higher point per game Isiah averages compared to the vast efficiency difference.

Or compare him to his teammate Joe Dumars, who had a good career as a scorer but most don’t consider him lights out compared to his defense. At 17.2 and 17.8 pts in 89 and 90 he’s only marginally behind Isiah, but more efficient at .571 and .555 TS% giving him a great argument for having a better scoring season. His career high scoring season (23.5ppg) is higher than Isiah’s and while Isiah is lauded for big playoff performances, in 89 and 90 Isiah had 5 30 point games to Dumars 4. Other than eye test reasons which don’t show itself in stats, much like Stockton there’s little reason to separate Isiah from Dumars as a scorer by more than a marginal amount.

Naturally however the league is full of players who’s impact wasn’t captured by their stats. You have to be there to know who they are emotionally – and everyone from the time seems convinced Isiah was a superstar. This is where MVP and All NBA voting can play an invaluable role. Take Dave Cowens, another 2 time champion from a decade earlier. At 125th in career win shares his numbers don’t back up his legacy either, but the respect for him as a supestar is shown in MVP voting when he beat prime Kareem in 1973 and finished 2nd two years later. 

Which brings us to the most confounding part of the Isiah puzzle – why did he receive no MVP or All NBA love in 89 and 90? He did well earlier in his career rating 1st team All-NBA from 84-86 and 5th, 8th and 9th in MVP voting for those years, albeit his career MVP shares of 89th is still far off consensus. In 89 and 90 however he only finishes 13th and 17th and doesn’t make any of the three All-NBA teams – Dumars even beating him in 1990. Traditionally any best player on the best team does well in MVP voting, even if non-superstars. For example in 2006 Billups finished 5th on the 64 W Pistons and 2nd in All-NBA, far ahead of Isiah for the 63 W team in 1989. Tony Parker finished 5th and 6th in 2012 and 2013 while having Tim Duncan looming over him in a way no star did over Isiah. Yet for such a supposed clearcut superstar, this credit never shined onto Isiah. It’s hard to believe there was a conspiracy against him as even if disliked, it hadn’t stopped ultra reviled players like Elvin Hayes and Rick Barry from finishing top 5 in similar situations (Although it may have blocked their win). Perhaps the more believable explanation is that PGs like Stockton, Kevin Johnson and Mark Price were seen as more productive players their teams needed more and therefore people voted that way.

Another difference between Isiah and a player like Cowens is the how they would be underrated by the numbers. Cowens biggest impact was on the defensive end which is already hard to track statistically, but moreso he did it as like Garnett and Draymond being the premiere switching big of his era which didn’t show up in the block category. Add in legendary intensity and it’s easy to see why Cowens impact was rated to have not shown up in stats. Since point guard is an offensive stat friendly position it’s hard to say where Isiah’s impact isn’t captured by his points, assists and steals.

It’s not too say Isiah isn’t a great player. He has one of the top 15 all time PG careers in history. Even if you put all of Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Stephen Curry, John Stockton, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Walt Frazier, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Bob Cousy above him, after that many of the most talented PGs like Penny Hardaway, Kevin Johnson and Mark Price had abbreviated careers due to injury. At best he could sneak into the top 10 of that group over players like Kidd and Cousy. However I refuse to rate him as one of the 3 or 4 best players of that group over players who dwarfed him in production and talent. The Pistons had great success but defense, rebounding and depth played key roles much like 2004 and 2005 version. All evidence point towards his contribution being closer to the Billups of his team than the Jordan.

Written by jr.

May 3, 2020 at 5:48 pm

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